Magazine article History Today

Universal Projects for the Universal Man

Magazine article History Today

Universal Projects for the Universal Man

Article excerpt

THE ARTIST, SCIENTIST, BOTANIST, ANATOMIST, engineer, inventor and all-round genius Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) used paper in a unique way. His notebooks are full of ideas sketched just as they poured into his head, seeking solutions to problems while pursuing lateral connections between his disparate fields of enquiry in such profusion that the pages of sketches and notes resemble a state of continual brainstorming. The books have always been highly valued, and this summer they will be revealed in a unique manner in a series of exhibitions across Europe, linked by a website called

The exhibitions kicked off in Florence and Oxford earlier in the year, and will continue in Munich and Budapest, as well as in London where many of Britain's great Leonardo holdings will be displayed at the V&A in an exhibition opening in September entitled Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design.

Leonardo has long fascinated scholars and the general public. In 1994 Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, acquired the notebook entitled Codex Hammer (now renamed the Codex Leicester) and a few years later challenged scholars to find a new way of looking at the artist. The Universal Leonardo is the result.

Other exhibitions have looked at the contents of the notebooks, but this one will explore the way in which his mind worked, the 'plastic process of thought' in the words of Martin Kemp, Professor of Art History at Oxford University and the exhibition's curator. Kemp has set himself the target of showing how Leonardo thought on paper, how he developed new ways of visualising things that had never been visualized before, through cutaways and see-through sketches (one thinks of the drawing of the foetus in the womb), not just to record his observations but to help him think through problems. The task is not straightforward as some pages of his notebooks may have up to 16 separate elements--drawn and written--on them, and deconstructed their contents and their relations is a complex task.

Kemp hopes, though, to be able to show how the process of visualization fed directly back into the welter of ideas in Leonardo's fertile brain. Thus for example, next to some of his exceptional drawings of turbulence in water flowing past an obstruction, the artist has noted that the force of the water resembles the fall of tresses of curly hair.

Continually he sought unity between human beings and nature, with the eye as the essential interface between the two: what he called the 'window of the soul' through which we can look at and understand nature. …

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